If not his life, what then is the subject matter of The Education of Henry Adams? And how do we understand these contradicting things? Are there innovations in this book? What does Adams have to say about the real subject matter of this book? These are some of the questions that this paper resolves to answer. Preface, Fourth Paragraph In the fourth paragraph of the Preface to the book The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams says that Jean Jacques Rousseau is the first educator because he effaces his Ego.
This introduces the subject matter of the entire book which is not about the life of Henry Adams but about education. He uses the symbol of a manikin whose garments are changed every now and then. Adams wants his readers to look at him, the writer, as the manikin and education as the garments that are being fit to the manikin (Preface, Par. 4). When he says that the object of study is the garment that is being fitted to the manikin and not the manikin itself, Henry Adams is telling us that the subject matter of the book that we will read is education and not about himself.
He is doing this because it is easy for us to judge that the book will be about himself, an exercise to uplift his Ego. But in the preface, Adams is quick to tell us that we should not think this way. He lets us understand that the subject matter of the book is on education: what aspects of education are beneficial and what aspects are not. In the chapter entitled Harvard College, for example, Adams says that the garment that is the formal education that he wore for four years does not fit him. He says that it is not beneficial to him.
He feels that he does not develop in any way and that the four years that he spent in Harvard is just a waste of time: For the purposes of future advancement, as afterwards appeared, these first four years of a possible education were wasted in doing imperfectly what might have been done perfectly in one, and in any case would have had small value (Chapter IV, Par. 1). It does not mean though that the teachers in Harvard did not teach or that Adams did not attend classes. What Adams means by this is that he did not get the knowledge that he needs in Harvard and so he thinks that his stay in Harvard is a waste of time.
Adams observes that the students of Harvard are mediocre, free from meannesses, jealousies, intrigues, enthusiasms, and passions (Chapter IV, Par. 4). They are not moulded to become shakers and innovators of the country: Harvard College, as far as it educated at all, was a mild and liberal school, which sent young men into the world with all they needed to make respectable citizens, and something of what they wanted to make useful ones. Leaders of men it never tried to make (Chapter IV, Par. 2). This passage relates back to the Preface when Adams says in the Preface that the tailors object. . .
is to fit young men, in universities or elsewhere, to be men of the world, equipped for any emergency; and the garment offered to them is meant to show the faults of the patchwork fitted on their fathers. (Preface, Par. IV). The tailor is Harvard College and the fault that Adams sees in Harvard College is that it does not produce leaders but followers. The garment the Harvard College offered to him is still the garment that his father used does not fit him. This implies the speculation of Adams about the nature and value of education. True education should be seen in the characteristics of the person who has received it.
Merely saying that one goes to a college with a good reputation does not prove that one has truly received an education. True education should produce graduates with strong and independent personalities that will help them to effect changes in the society that they will eventually join. So after years of stay in Harvard, Adams believe that he does not know anything yet to share with us and his Education had not begun (Chapter IV, Par. 25). This relates back to the preface. What Adams is saying is that the garment of Harvard College does not fit him. Preface, Fifth Paragraph
In the fifth paragraph of the Preface, Adams talks about an active-minded young man. He says that the active-minded young man is a certain form of energy which means that a true seeker of knowledge knows that inside him, there is a potentiality. This is like the latent force of energy. The purpose of education is to turn this potentiality into an actuality by partly clearing away of obstacles and partly the direct application of effort. This implies that Adams view of the nature of education is that education should not just spoon feed knowledge but it should involve effort on the part of the learner.
This can be related to the chapter The Dynamo and the Virgin. We can say that in his preface, Adams prepares us for this chapter. Almost fifty years after Adams (non)education in Harvard, he continues his education aching to absorb knowledge in the 1900 Great exhibition (Chapter XXV, Par. 1). This is where he first sees the dynamo which is a large machine that is meant to transform the energy of coal to electricity. He admits that he does not receive education from this experience: The secret of education still hid itself somewhere behind ignorance (Chapter XXV, Par.
18). Nevertheless, this is a very important development in his education because it has given him a powerful tool to use in his lifetime search for real education. In this chapter, he sees his latent force inside of him. He becomes the active-minded young man that he is talking about in his preface. He compares the experience as the staff to a blind man (Chapter XXV, Par. 18). Adams discovery of the dynamo overwhelms him because it is his first time to see a large machine whose motion is more spectacular to Adams than the motion of the earth:
As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arms length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring . . . (Chapter XXV, Par. 3). This relates back to the preface specifically the fifth paragraph because in this chapter, the dynamo becomes a symbol for Adams of his energy.
He is awed not by the physical appearance of the dynamo but by the way that the dynamo powerfully exhibits the workings of energy and motion. Through the dynamo, Adams experienced an infinite force and ultimate energy (Chapter XXV, Par. 3). Preface, Last Paragraph The last paragraph of the Preface shows us and prepares us for the over-all tone of the book. The tone is that of a person who is wise, old, serious, and self-effacing. Adams says that the only purpose of the manikin is so that there can be a three-dimensional model. This is also the purpose of this book.
The reason why Adam uses his own life for the purpose of talking about education is so that the subject matter of education will not just be an intellectual discussion but instead is something that is connected to real life. And the way that Adams does this is by using his own life experiences to talk about education. He does not write this book so that readers will know that he is an outstanding man or that he has a lot of achievements in his life. He writes his autobiography to give light to the subject matter of education. We can relate this to the entire body of the book because the entire book does not use the first-person pronoun I.
Instead, Henry Adams uses the third-person pronoun or the nouns, the student or the historian. This is the innovation in his book. Most autobiographies use the first-person point of view in their autobiographies but in this book, Adams chooses to be self-effacing. It is like the young Adams who is the central character of the book is different from the old Adams who is the writer of the book. In the Chapter entitle Vis Enertia, for example, Adams the writer addresses Adams the character in the book as the student who has passed the best years of his life in pondering over political philosophy (Chapter XXX, Par.
2). In this Chapter also, we can have a sense of the tone of that old, wise and serious man. He analyzes the political relationships of the Russia, China and Germany in a very serious manner. We get this feeling that this is one of the most important things to discuss for Adams. He makes use of heavy words such as single force in Eastern affair (Chapter XXX, Par. 3), friction ” If century could be held there, a century of friction could be saved (Chapter XXX, Par. 5), mass and motion continental mass of inert motion (Chapter XXX, Par. 10), and inertia the wall of Russian inertia (Chapter XXX, Par. 9) that all give us the sense that his attitude towards what he is saying or his tone is that of an old, wise and serious man.
Conclusion The subject matter of the book The Education of Henry Adams is education. His tone is that of an old, wise and serious man who looks objectively and talks about the experiences of the young Henry Adams. The innovations that he employ in this book is the use of a third person pronoun to talk his younger self and the effacing of his self even if this is an autobiographical book.
For Henry Adams, the nature and value of education is not in the reputation of the educational institution and the desire for social respect (which to Adams is the main problem of Harvard College). The nature and value of education is in the process of turning the potentiality of a human into an actuality. And this is what he shows in this book.
Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. University of Virginia Hypertext.